It used to be a date with only happy associations for me. September 11 is my birthday. But the happy associations were stripped from the date forever a week ago today. That was the day when 9/11 turned into 9-1-1, as in the telephone number for emergencies.
I had taken the day off to celebrate, to stay at home and read a good book. Maybe even two books. I never got the chance. Instead, I learned how important an online community can be.
I began my birthday by sleeping late. But by 8:30 I was up and watching "Today." At about 8:45, I decided to check my e-mail. There were about 30 messages that had come in overnight.
No, I don't have a lot of friends and business associates who are online freaks. But I belong to an e-mail discussion group devoted to words and writing. There are more than 1,000 members of the group worldwide, representing most of the planet's English-speaking countries and some that are not. It's a civilized group, one that rarely sees "flame" wars or unkindness of any sort. What else would you expect from a bunch of word geeks?
A lot of the overnight e-mails were birthday greetings. The group has a birthday monitor who sends out reminders, so good wishes from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and other places on the opposite side of the globe had come in while I was asleep. By this time it was about 9:15, and I was vaguely aware of hearing Katie Couric and Matt Lauer on the TV in the other room.
Then came a terse e-mail from a group member at the University of Delaware: Does anybody know what's going on? A moment later, there was another e-mail from the East Coast: I just turned on CNN and started to cry immediately.
What? Cry? Wait. I walked into the living room to see what Matt and Katie were reporting.
Five minutes later, I was typing my own message to the group: Oh dear God. Those poor people.
I spent the next few hours in two chairs no more than 20 feet apart, one in front of the TV and one in front of the PC. The TV showed me what was going on. The PC provided a network of friends to remind me that I wasn't really alone.
From a group member in Canada: I am sitting here in Montreal, with CNN on. This is just about the most frightening thing I have seen. ... I am completely stunned. From a member on Cape Cod: Happy birthday. Won't forget this one soon, I guess. I'm stunned. From a member farther west: We'll never feel safe again. My God. From a member in Northern Virginia: From my window, I can see black smoke billowing from the direction of the Pentagon. And from a member in Edinburgh, Scotland: Sympathy to all, especially New York. ... Hope everyone's OK.
Anguished messages and expressions of solidarity poured in from the U.S. and around the world. Like countless others, I didn't know whether to cry or get fighting mad. Then I sent a message of my own: I'm sitting at home alone watching TV as this horror unfolds. I cannot tell you how grateful I am for the sense of community that [this group] is providing. ... Thanks to you all, I don't feel quite so alone right now. From the other side of the world came a response: Same here in Taipei, with only TV news and tied up telephone networks.
It continued all morning and well into the afternoon. We held each other's hands and hugged each other electronically. The word geeks provided a new kind of solace for the digital age.
By late afternoon I still hadn't cried although there had been times when I came close.
Then came the message from abroad that pushed me over the edge: A longtime lurker, stunned with what I saw in TV, I want to pass to all of you in U.S. the words of admiration expressed in our media by people who are close to the scene; admiration for the permeating sense of commonness among the people who are there. I feel the same when I read the posts from US-ian [friends]. My thoughts are with you. Grzegorz, in cold and shocked Krakow, Poland.
Grzegorz, whose name I couldn't even pronounce, who had been reading our messages to improve his English, whose own country had been through so much more in recent years than we lucky "US-ians" had endured, was offering up his admiration for us in our time of unspeakable horror.
That, finally, made me cry.
I've seen a lot of things come and go in my 59 years on the planet, but I've never before been comforted at a time like this by people whose faces I've never seen and probably never will see.
Welcome to the digital age, Don. And to a new definition of family.
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